GUEST BLOG: Margaret Mutu – Māori Constitutional Transformations


The panel on a Tiriti-compliant strategy for Aotearoa at the October 2018 hui on What an Alternative and Progressive Trade Strategy for New Zealand Should Look Like reminded us of the uniqueness of our challenges and opportunities. Margaret Mutu led the discussion with reflections on constitutional transformation, most recently articulated in the report Matike Mai.

Margaret is Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whātua, and Professor in the Department of Maori Studies, University of Auckland.


Jane Kelsey (chair): Margaret, you were, with Moana Jackson, co-author and co-coordinator of a constitutional consultation amongst Maori as to what constitutional change should look like, so what for you would be a Tiriti-compliant approach to how we should address these kinds of agreements and international relationships?

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Margaret: [He mihi] Most of the work that was done on constitutional transformation was done by Moana Jackson. He wrote most of the Matike Mai report, and he is very clear it is transformation not change – we have to unpick what’s there and start again. He called together 252 hui around the country in order to determine what it would take for Maori to be able to live in the country in a way that was relevant to them and so that Maori no longer lived at the margins of this country that is, in fact, ours.


The main thing was that the existing constitutional arrangements in this country do not work for our people and there has to be fundamental change. That change goes back to the Treaty that was struck in 1840 and the Declaration that was issued in 1835 that said very very clearly where power and authority lies in this country.  We call it mana, in British terms you call it sovereignty. It lies with the hapu, not with the iwi, not with the collective of groups of extended families, but with the hapu, the economic units of Maoridom. And hapu have never ever ceded that. To this day they still consider they have it.


Some, particularly those of us who live in very remote areas, still exercise that authority. I’m talking about my own hapu, Te Whānau Moana of the iwi Ngati Kahu. Any government or local government official or person who wants to come onto our territory can’t come without our permission. And if they do come it’s because we ask them and they have a specific task they will do. Once that’s done they are gone. In my hapu we make our own decisions about our own lives on our own land. It makes no difference to us whether the government says to us “but you don’t own that land, someone else has title over it”. We are remote enough (you would never get away with this in Tamaki Makaurau) that we can just say you can tell as many lies as you like and write down as many lies as “you like on paper that you call title to land, but we know that land is ours and we will take over and take back our lands”.  We don’t call it occupation, we call it repossession.


And we try to build our own economy. We will trade with whom we wish to trade. At the moment my hapu is setting up a relationship. We do things differently when we trade. We build relationships first, and we decide if these are the kinds of people we want to work with. At the moment we are working with a very large capitalist-organised company in China. They have similar thinking to ours, and they also know – because we said so at the beginning – when you come in here you come into our territory, our land, we have our own rules. You are our guest. Please live by our rules. We will decide what those rules are, not the NZ government.


This is the sort of thing we were told as we went around the country talking about the transformation that needed to be made to the constitutional arrangements in this country. So the report, which was written largely by Moana, looks at the fact that the constitutional arrangements currently are failing. But don’t concentrate on that, concentrate on how are you going to live and conduct yourselves in a way that does not perpetuate that situation, does not perpetuate the poverty our people are forced to live under, that we will take back control of our lives.


So you will see in the report Moana talks about creating a future environment where Maori are fully recognised and respected in this country for who we are. We are the mana whenua, we are the power and authority in this country. We are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of this country and everybody in it. That hasn’t been recognised. But we will continue to operate as if it has, within my hapu anyway. And that tikanga, our laws that were here long before anyone else came, matauranga Maori our knowledge systems, He Wakaputanga the 1835 Declaration of the location of mana in our hapu, and te Tiriti are all a natural part of the order of this country. There is no debate about this. It’s just the way it is. And you walk your talk on this stuff. As a result of this hapu and iwi exercise their own mana. As you find in my hapu, when you exercise your own mana that includes taking on responsibility for everything that’s good and everything that’s bad as well. But you are responsible for your own wellbeing.


All peoples have a respected constitutional place in this country.  Now that is something that came to disturb me more and more as we went around the country – it is not just Maori who are marginalised in this country. There are a lot of other people who are marginalised. So when we took this report out and around the country we got asked particularly by people who are not of European descent whether they could please be a part of the Maori part of the constitutional makeup we were talking about. The models we ended up putting up meant that the Crown would stay where it is and look after its people, probably with its Parliament. Maori would look after our own area of influence (we got this ‘sphere of influence’ out of the Waitangi Tribunal) under our own tikanga, our ways of being. And they would be quite independent of the Crown’s and the Crown would no longer have any right to have any say over Maori matters because it was not allowed for in Te Tiriti and certainly not under He Wakaputanga. So the way the Crown operates now is quite illegitimate. When people asked if we can please be part of you, we said “fine provided you want to live under our tikanga”. And what disturbed me even more was that Pakeha came and asked if they could join as well; well, fine if you want to live under our tikanga – just remember you’ve got the Crown over there as well. But they have to learn to talk to each other, properly.


The constitution that is put in place must be good, just and participatory government for and by all people, not just a privileged few, which is what you have at the moment. It must be consistent with the values we talk about in the report and we will talk about here, and that it benefits everybody. This is part of the underlying value system that Maoridom has. If some do not benefit then your system is failing. And at the end of the day all NZers prosper and celebrate the heritage of what we have, not just those who can derive monetary benefit. I often wonder where they sit spiritually, because that’s what gets sacrificed with all this capitalism and neoliberalism.


We have not been consulted on these agreements in any way, shape or form, and I am quite surprised at the comments from Canada that the NZ government has been consulting them. I am a member of national iwi chairs forum, so I know what’s going on there and I know they won’t come and talk to us (although I’m not responsible for what half the members of the forum do either!). It is clear to me, especially when we were doing the constitutional transformation work, that Maori throughout the country have to take back control of our lives, and we are going to do it in every forum that we need to do that.


A lot of our people, as Ani will talk about, are a bit scared. We’ve been in this colonised space for some time, and they have to build confidence to know that they can make their own decisions. Tanya, the kind of work you are doing in Southern Initiative is really important to give our people the space to get back that confidence to say you do not have to constantly be slaves. I did like that question about leisure. For my people at home, my nieces and nephews, who refuse to keep paying rent, and go home and say to hell with the local council about resource consents – we build our own places to live in and we make our own lives work, and we do a bit of work to get some money.  But we are back with our whanau, living life the way we knew about and we are about 2 generations away from when it was actually done in practice. There are enough of us still around to say “and this is what a communal garden looks like, and this is how you need to be looking after the mokopuna”.


So when the big investors come from overseas we’re not scared of them, because that is still a part of who we are – provided they don’t run roughshod over us. Now the first lot who came out home in Karikari peninsula was an American. We ended up dragging him through the courts up to the Supreme Court because we had the expertise within our whanau to know how to do that. He got the hell out of there and sold to the Chinese. The Chinese were a totally different kettle of fish. This particular Chinese company was more concerned with relationships. We can relate to that. If we couldn’t we would have fought them the same way.


What I am hearing here is, our people will get there. But we can’t do it immediately tomorrow. We need to give ourselves, and from what I am hearing from the rest of you give the country, the confidence that you can actually make your own decisions for yourselves and not let those bureaucrats in Wellington do that. Someone was being generous about those bureaucrats in Wellington – I’m not.  


Question: I respect the majority of the korero has been around tangata whenua. As a trade union organiser I am out each day trying to improve people’s lives against the corporate hegemony. I’m interested to get a response around your focus on he tangata: how do the people benefit from your approach. I think that’s a great conversation to have.


Margaret: The key thing is about giving people back power over their own lives and control of their decisions, and to do things that are relevant to them instead of being, as so many of our people are, slaves to other people and they never get to see the benefit. The work has to be relevant and the work has to benefit our people. The need for us to have our marae is just fundamentally important and yet I see no provision for the upkeep of our marae, we do it all pinching and scraping. We have stop that happening. The marae are the centre of our lives and that’s where we need to be.



  1. I agree on the outdated nature of the constitutional framework, which needs to be overhauled. However I think a lot more New Zealanders will be more easily persuaded when the Queen passes on. At that point there will be a symbolic break for the older generation who have grown up with the Queen and have come to accept her.

    At this point a whole lot of questions such as whether we adopt a formal constitution will come into play including what type of constitution do we want – an embedded one like the U.S., something light weight but robust, or something else. There will also be a whole lot of other issues that might be good for revision at this point such as whether we become a Republic, change the flag and so forth.

    That time is closer than we think. The Duke of Edinburgh has probably only a few years left, the Queen maybe 10 years.

    No one has given much thought to this, though New Zealand Republican movement are discussing readiness for a republic push should the Queen pass on.

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